Tuesday, June 6, 2006
When Jay DeMerit told reporters after the Championship Playoff final that his family and friends had been there to witness his game winning performance, an English reporter asked him if he had had to explain the rules to them first.

And if you thought a World Cup quarterfinal finish for the USA in 2002 and a consistently high FIFA ranking ever since had washed away the tide of ignorance surrounding America and soccer, you would be sadly wrong.

Having trawled Europe's major media for their views on the USA in the upcoming World Cup, I can only say it is a case of 'plus ça change...'

While a few have done their homework, many more have either drawn vague, horoscope-esque conclusions from regurgitated stats, or else made wild guesses about a team they have not paid any attention to since Korea.

Le Monde in France for instance said nothing beyond the fact the US team is "very experienced and looking to cause some upsets." Merci for that.

Still, you learn something new every day.

I for instance did not know that Eddie Johnson is a left back who plays for Bolton (Marca, Spain), that Kerry Zavagnin will start ahead of Claudio Reyna (Algemeen Dagblad, Holland) or that John O'Brien will play as a striker (Daily Express, England).

There is clearly still a lot of bafflement, if not consternation felt by many Europeans, who prefer to pigeon-hole the US as a non-soccer nation. This explains the number of previews wondering if the sport can grow in America, as well as the now expected jibes from our chums in England.

Sometimes I think the United States would have to win three World Cups to get the respect they deserve, but at least these wacko shots in the dark from the Old World's media, depressing as they can be, give us US soccer watchers a laugh and a reason to feel smug once every four years.

So sit back and savor the wisdom of the soccer snobs, I mean aficionados, from across the pond. Let's face it, since they invented the game, only they really know what they are talking about - as I certainly don't.

We start in Zurich, Switzerland where the FIFA 2006 World Cup website compliments the USA's 'consistent play, comprehensive preparations and a slew of talented players', among whom Clint Dempsey is the joker in the pack.

Its official magazine, however, includes Carlos Bocanegra and Zavagnin in the starting eleven and as proof of Arena's enlightened youth policy highlights Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman, neither of whom will be in Germany. But it wins points for being candid about the draw, calling it 'a real stinker' for the US.

Next stop, the host nation, where Kicker, the doyen of German soccer, drones on about its status vis a vis the 'big 4' US sports and how America's soccer infrastructure differs from Europe's.

The 'US boys' have made 'clear progress', according to Kicker, and will depend on the 'stormy and extrovert' risk-taker that is Landon Donovan, and the 'linchpin' Reyna.

Der Spiegel, a stolid political weekly, produced a one-off World Cup guide with a paragraph on each country's politics inserted into the team guides. Its US line up was actually spot on apart from the subsequently withdrawn Cory Gibbs, but disappointingly lacked any analysis beyond noting that the US has yet to beat any of their first round opponents.

L'Equipe, France's sports daily, should be a reliable source, and it opines that the USA are 'forcing respect' from the world, but devotes most of its piece to Project 2010 and the coming American conquest of soccer, despite the fact that said plan has been pushed on to the back burner in Prairie Avenue, Chicago.

"London" Donovan carries 'all the hopes of a nation' as the 'master' of the US formation and, despite the fact we won't get past Brazil in the second round, the French are convinced "the American dream has no limits."

The equally respected France Football, which bills itself as 'The Bible of Football' and is perhaps the best European soccer paper of all, gets the US team and formation down to a tee, although offers little analysis of 'the Yankees' beyond the fact that Reyna and Donovan pull the strings.

Italy's fanatic daily soccer press follows the game with a stronger magnifying glass than any in the world although the in-depth knowledge of La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, their top two soccer dailies, did not carry to the one-off World Champions magazine, which plumbed new depths of ignorance.

Four of its US starting eleven did not make the squad, Brian McBride was dropped in favor of Freddy Adu, and Steve Ralston partners Reyna in the middle with Chris Armas on the right wing.

Yes, really.

Far better was the long established Guerin Sportivo magazine, where Roberto Gotta penned perhaps the best analysis in Europe of the American squad, and delightfully labeled Brian Ching as 'McBride's alter ego', although I was not sure about the 3-5-2 formation with the two starting together.

Spain's hacks were some of the most off-target with their prognostics.

The US merited only a single page in Marca, when most nations got two. The daily soccer paper puts Arena's boys down for first round elimination and laments the fact the wunderkind Adu is not in Germany. Well, get over it.

Marca concentrates on those with Spanish connections, focusing on Reyna's Argentine heritage and Kasey Keller's spell at Rayo Vallecano.

Its US eleven appears courtesy of a night of sangria abuse however, with Johnson at left back, Eddie Lewis as a striker, and bizarrely both of them playing for Bolton Wanderers.

El Pais benches Lewis and Dempsey in favor of Bocanegra and Johnson and says the US will probably exit at the first hurdle, citing the defense as the weak link in the American armory with a 4/10 rating.

Its main rival El Mundo pulls a real surprise, though, when writer Brendon Hanley plunges international exile Greg Vanney back into the US starting eleven for the finals.

Hanley also solves the Lewis dilemma by playing him as a twin striker alongside McBride with Eddie Pope in midfield and Donovan pushed on to the right wing. To cap his bad day at the office, Hanley picks out two young players eager to make an impact in Germany to watch out for: Twellman and Jonathan Spector.

Long established soccer weekly Don Balon was a tale of two critiques, noting the American fitness levels and never say die attitude while pinpointing a lack of pace in defense and the meager creative midfield options beyond Reyna.

At the same time it insisted Pope would play at right wing back and listed twenty five possible players including Vanney, Noonan, Zavagnin, Ralston, Armas, Santino Quaranta and Chad Marshall, whom they label "the master of the area."

Portugal's soccer daily A Bola was pretty accurate in its assessment of the US team and wondered if the choice of Hamburg was because its name was so similar to 'America's favorite food'!

Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad, almost three weeks after the roster was announced, fields Zavagnin instead of Reyna and mixes up Lewis and Steve Cherundolo's positions but interestingly was the only outlet to comment critically on Arena's personality, calling him a sometimes 'obstinate' and 'sarcastic' man.

And lastly we land in England, the home of the long ball and short sighted soccer attitudes, where London's Evening Standard was typical four years ago in claiming the USA were 'just making up the numbers'. In 2006 the same paper proclaimed: "Beware of the American underdog."

The Daily Telegraph, traditionally the paper with the best sports coverage, has an anodyne write up with phrases like, "Reyna and co. are very organized and typically athletic."

The Telegraph was more interested in how the sport might take off in America (boring!) although boldly predicted the US would qualify ahead of the Czech Republic before losing to Brazil in the second round.

It also placed DaMarcus Beasley in central midfield with O'Brien on the left wing and included Gibbs, over a week after he had exited the squad.

We await with less than bated breath a repeat of 2002 when sections of the English media seemed to have it in for the States, dispatching crews to vox-pop American tourists at Westminster Abbey, financial workers in New York City or baseball fans in Baltimore with loaded questions designed to expose their lack of soccer knowledge e.g. "What's your favorite FOOTBALL team?"

But the real ignorance came from the BBC, where host and former World Cup hero Gary Lineker mocked the relative lack of public interest in the United States at every opportunity while commentators displayed an acute lack of knowledge of the US players.

The nadir was reached when BBC online published an extraordinary tabloid style article by Tom Fordyce, who pretended to be a clueless Yank discussing soccer using contrived American sports vocabulary for 'comic' effect.

BBC Online has maintained its high standards for 2006, naming Adu as the American's 'Star Man' and inexplicably including Heerenveen's Michael Bradley among a 24-man squad (this listing has since been removed).

The website's USA page contains yet another article revealing soccer is not big in America (wow) while their conclusion that the States are 'unlikely to make much of an impression', could equally apply to their analysis.

BBC Match of the Day magazine is little better and has anglocentric written all over it. Jonathan Pearce sets the tone thus: "Four players well known in England are the key to Team US emulating the success of 2002..."

Donovan gets a mention as a 'midfield playmaker' but Pearce can't have followed Babycakes' torrid time in Leverkusen that closely if he thinks "his experience in Germany will be crucial."

Beasley's recent travails have passed unnoticed too as he is set to provide 'real, top-level quality', but the main theme was how many of them do we know already - "Look out too for the England-based Carlos Bocanegra, Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann."

The Daily Express' glossy World Cup guide was one of those published before the squad lists were announced and its US eleven includes Zavagnin at right midfield and a strike partnership of Twellman and O'Brien.

In World Soccer magazine, the venerable Paul Gardner pens a rehash of his Soccer America column, where he never fails to mention how the US neglects its Latin talent base; America will struggle to get out of their group and will not go beyond the second round was his conclusion.

Alongside the familiar publications come a host of one-off magazines that pop up every four years hoping to cash in on the public fervor for the big show and where you expect to find the less watertight analyses, cobbled together from late night Googling.

Destination Germany 2006 for instance contains an interesting 3-2-2-1-2 formation for the USA with Bocanegra and Reyna twin shields in front of a back three and Lewis, whom they describe as a 'speedy left winger' elsewhere, playing in the hole behind McBride and Josh Wolff.

World Cup 2006 goes one better with a three man midfield of Armas on the right, Lewis in the middle and Zavagnin on the left.

But The Definitive Guide to the World Cup was well written and had an almost faultless US line up, with only Bocanegra unlikely to make the cut.

It was almost alone in mentioning Arena's diamond formation and took a unique angle in recounting the impact MLS has had on the national team, Arkady Gelman believing the States could quite easily make the last eight again.

The best lowdown on the States from England came from Ben Lyttleton in Four Four Two magazine, before the roster was released, his only forgivable fault the prediction of a supporting role for Twellman.

The Times online is on the ball, continuing to list Cory Gibbs after the tournament had begun and it was nice to see Twellman make it to the finals after all, having changed his name to Eddie Johnson.

The Observer only gave the US a quarter of a page compared to a full one for Italy but should not have bothered, preferring to talk more about Donovan's actress girlfriend than any team tactics, and praising Arena for being 'brilliantly named'.

Sister paper The Guardian adopted an even more tongue in cheek approach, with analysis ending at "everything revolves around the US captain."

They note Donovan did not waste his time in Germany as he learned how to dive there and hypothesized that if the US were a shoe they would be a Doc Marten – lacking finesse but with a simple message: "Do what I say or feel the force."

So another fifteen minutes of fame for US soccer in Europe draws to a close and I am left wondering whether awareness levels will have risen or prejudices melted when South Africa 2010 comes around.

But never mind the press, here's the US - let's do our talking on the field!

Or else move to Belgium, where the soccer web pages of the nation's best-selling French language daily do not even mention the World Cup, believe it or not.

Ah, they did not qualify, you holler, but then how do you explain the paucity of column inches in France's and Portugal's newspapers?

Maybe there are just better things in June to worry about than Adu's choice of jersey or twenty two men chasing a spherical ball.

The World Cup? Whatever.

Americans don't care anyway.

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